There’s life in the old xenomorph yet: “Alien: Covenant” is the sixth (or eighth, depending on how you’re counting) entry in the franchise that exported systematic elimination, haunted houses, and body horror into deep space.
The series has a long if mixed pedigree. The wordless trailer of the original “Alien” (1979) remains a lesson for today’s studios about the value of not oversharing. It doesn’t even show the big creature, while the movie itself cannily shows it at angles and in shadow, never all at once, to better preserve the terror. These days the original may seem a little slow starting, but when it clamps down, it’s nerve-wracking to the end and a thrill-ride for both horror and science fiction fans.
Director James Cameron is easy to dislike, but the rambunctious fighting sequel “Aliens” (1986) was pretty close to perfect, and the alien queen was excellent nightmare fuel. Those first two movies featuring Sigourney Weaver as the female action hero were tough acts to follow. Both have near-perfect ratings on the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
Let’s Put This Film in Context
Among the dozens of people who liked “Alien 3” (1992), the longer unofficial cut is well-regarded, actually making the religious references in the official release seem less half-baked. But “Alien Resurrection” (1997) was a failed experiment from a French director, featuring a mic-cast Winona Ryder and too much Scooby-Dooing down hallways. The less said about the pair of “Alien vs. Predator” movies of the early 2000s, the better.
Scott’s 2012 return to the Alien universe via the big-themed “Prometheus” (2012) was confident—perhaps overconfident, with confounding mumbo-jumbo interspersed with some striking scenes and cinematography. It even found a nasty if ultimately dead-end groove for a (literally) riveting 15 minutes’ worth of shock value. But the movie couldn’t bring the built-in audience along, which demanded fewer bull sessions and more chest-bursting, or back-bursting, as the case may be. Instead we got an occult, Erich Von Daniken tale of visitations to Earth by a race known as The Engineers, who left invitations to follow them into the stars via pictographs.
“Prometheus’s” failure is hard to pin down, but real: The windy philosophizing, the lack of “proper” xenomorphs, Guy Pearce in awful old-man makeup, and most notorious, the shot of that familiar horseshoe-shaped spaceship slowly toppling and eventually splatting a major character who doesn’t bother to get out of the narrow path of danger. Perhaps by that time the movie had already sapped the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
Worse, it felt like a dismissal of the “Alien” gestalt, from “Who’s there?” to “Where did we come from?” And I won’t pretend to understand the genetic consequences of the “black goo”—the stuff humans unwittingly ingest that can lead to fatal backaches. The lifecycles of the differing xenomorphs (given nicknames like the Deacon and the Trilobite by fans) also wash over me. So, let’s stick to basics.
That All Brings Us to ‘Covenant’
“Covenant” is set in the year 2104, 10 years after “Prometheus.” Covenant is a colony ship carrying more than a dozen crew and a couple thousand citizens and embryos in hypersleep, bound for a promising-looking planet for terraforming, Origae-6.
After a philosophical beginning with David playing the piano for his human creator, the familiar franchise drumbeats begin to sound. A colony ship intercepts an ambivalent signal and goes down to investigate a strange, quite habitable planet. Only crewmate Daniels (Katherine Waterston) thinks it’s too good to be true, and tries to convince newly installed captain Oram (Billy Crudup). Needless to say, she fails and is proven correct.
The crew is paired off into married couples, which provides some poignancy to the inevitable line of fatalities to follow. Still, it’s a challenge to retain emotional involvement in a constant cast of characters who wander away from the group and promptly get themselves killed.
Scott acceded to the critics of “Prometheus,” and all the old favorites are back. There’s the tall one with the elongated noggin and extra set of teeth, the famous chest-burster, and the one who started the life-cycle, the face-hugger. Pro tip: if someone asks you to peer down into a blooming alien egg, it’s a trap!
About 15 minutes in, you’ll pretty much know who will be the ones still running in the final reel, and even when Scott delivers a twist or two, you will see them coming. Still, Scott’s craftmanship and experience will engage you. “Covenant” ties up some loose ends from “Prometheus” in grimly satisfying fashion, while putting off the big questions, presumably for the sequels to these prequels.
“Covenant” wisely indulges in the original biomechanical visions of creature designer H.R. Giger, the late Swiss artist, and Scott gets plenty out of the typical underlit palette, heightening the psychological terror. When your only tool is a flamethrower, everything looks like an alien head.
Oddly, the subject of the alien itself rarely comes up in the dialogue, with few references to or curiosity about the creature’s origin. This version of the classic monster, while suitably scary, also comes off a touch mindless and ruthless, not the crafty killing machine stalking the poor crew of the Nostromo ship of the original movie.
Trapped In a Dead End
Danny McBride is a corny pleasure as a country-fried space jockey, but Michael Fassbender is “Covenant’s” star acting attraction in a duel role, as the enigmatic droid David, who barely survived “Prometheus,” and Walter, an updated version of the droid. Fassbender somehow makes riveting a rather long scene of David teaching Walter to play the recorder.
But it’s unclear where the franchise can go from here. Judging by the so-so box office and ho-hum reviews of “Covenant” (and “Prometheus” before it) there are diminishing returns of humans being chased through dark interstellar halls. Set it on Earth and lay out the alien mythology via Giger-esque iconography? Those two unloved “Aliens vs. Predator” movies kind of did that already.
Director Scott is unflagging at 79 and planning two more prequels. Let’s hope he’s around to make them both. Scott insisted of his 1979 film: “It has absolutely no message. It works on a very visceral level and its only point is terror, and more terror.” Perhaps age and experience has made the director more philosophical, but this wonderfully scary monster franchise is a strange container to fill with ruminations on human existence.
Unraveling the origins of the fascinating title creature, to make it comprehensible, risks making the xenomorph less primal and scary—less, shall we say, Alien—much like the Hulk movies drained the drama by explaining in scientific detail just why The Hulk got green and angry. It risks reducing the elemental, horrific strangeness of the xenomorphs to a series of science projects gone awry. Horror fans enjoy the thrill of scary things they don’t understand. It’s always a little disappointing when you learn how the trick is done.